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Jeff Jardine: Hickman pastor in 'negative focus'

It appeared in the lower right-hand corner of Page B-2 in Monday's Bee: An obviously well-lawyered paid advertisement from Hickman Community Church explaining that Pastor Doug Porter had resigned "to protect the church from further negative focus."

Porter is the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation by the Stanislaus County district attorney's office and a civil lawsuit.

That "negative focus" stems from a series of incidents involving Porter over the past three years.

He drove the vehicle that struck a tree, nearly killing passenger Frank E. Craig of Hickman in March 2002.

Porter also drove the pickup that plunged into an irrigation canal in April 2004. Craig, his passenger on this excursion as well, died. He was 85.

Normally, you might chalk up Craig's misfortune to having lousy luck in picking a chauffeur. But people tend to get suspicious when there's money involved, and that's what happened in this case.

Porter was the successor trustee of Craig's revocable trust, which Craig's surviving relatives believe once contained millions of dollars.

Upon Craig's death, Porter quickly laid claim to the trust, which Craig had earmarked for building an agriculture museum in Hickman. It's never been built, and Porter's control of Craig's money caused a huge stir in the tiny farm community across the Tuolumne River from Waterford.

It also troubled Craig's two surviving sisters, who challenged the trust in a lawsuit filed in August 2004. They allege Porter used undue influence and committed fraud to squeeze them out as heirs when Craig changed the trust in 1999.

His original trust, established in 1993, listed his brother Jim as successor trustee, followed by sisters Mary Gibbons and Pearl Eastman in the event that Jim Craig died before Frank.

He did, and the sisters were in line for the trust. But Frank Craig changed the trust twice. The second amendment, in 1999, is the source of contention.

Craig installed Porter as his successor trustee. Hickman Community Church became the beneficiary. The sisters were out, with the trust reading: "The settlor (Craig) has specifically not named his sisters, MARY T. GIBBONS and PEARL C. EASTMAN, as beneficiaries of this trust."

Scheduled for trial next month, the case has been delayed. Gibbons died in August and was replaced in the lawsuit by her daughter, Marilyn Whitney. And the family's attorney, David Jamieson, needed more time to review the vast number of documents, including checks, bank statements and receipts.

So the December court date instead will serve to plan the next step in a very complex case.

If the family cannot prove its allegations, the church stands to receive Craig's trust. But the church itself could be the victim, depending upon how Porter has managed -- or spent -- the money.

As successor trustee, it was Porter's responsibility to manage the trust for the beneficiary, which clearly is the church.

Porter didn't see it quite that way.

"He basically left everything in the trust to me, Doug Porter," Porter told me in June 2004. "There was no mention of the church."

He made similar statements to authorities when they released Craig's possessions to Porter shortly after Craig's death in April 2004.

Yet, as the document shows, Hickman Community Church is listed as the beneficiary.

Did church members begin questioning Porter's management of the trust? Did that play a role in his departure? If not, why not?

Church members, including an elder and a former associate pastor reached by phone, refused to comment on the case. Nor could Porter be reached for comment. And in the newspaper ad, the board of elders expressed a desire to clear the church's name and focus on its mission of staying true to the cause of Christ.

"We're doing this not by fighting media or court battles, but by answering questions with actions that we believe will speak for themselves," the ad states before announcing Porter's departure and addressing the civil lawsuit filed by Craig's heirs.

Meanwhile, Assistant District Attorney Carol Shipley said her department continues to review the case to decide whether it will charge Porter criminally.

"It's taken some time to obtain records to determine whether to go forward or not," Shipley said.

Clearly, the church decided to press on without its beleaguered and longtime pastor.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at 578-2383 or